World AIDS Day: Celebrating Progress

Today marks World AIDS Day for 2014 and Alex Greenwich says it’s time to celebrate all that’s been achieved to eradicate HIV and to look to the future initiatives.


People once thought that ending the spread of HIV would be impossible, but as we mark this World AIDS Day 2014, we know that is no longer true.

Contracting HIV is no longer a death sentence, and the rate of infection in New South Wales has been stable for the past decade. However, according to ACON, about 250 gay men per year will still contract HIV in this State.

Like many in the LGBTI community, I get a great deal of inspiration from the way in which our community came together and showed such strength in the face of devastation in the 1980s. Indeed, many people of a certain age in Sydney would know of someone who contracted HIV-AIDS or who cared for a family member or close friend who contracted the disease in the 1980s. At that time, Australia developed a compassionate, evidence-based response with responsible leadership and strong partnerships between governments, the scientific community, health professionals and, importantly, affected communities. Fortunately, Australia was not overwhelmed by fear and panic; instead, we enjoyed multi-partisan political support.

In New South Wales, the gay community established the AIDS Action Committee, which became the AIDS Council of New South Wales and is now known as ACON as well as the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation to provide care and support. Sex worker and injecting drug use communities set up similar organisations, including the Sex Worker Outreach Project and the NSW Users and AIDS Association. Consumer bodies such as People Living with HIV/AIDS NSW, Positive Living NSW and other community groups followed, representing those affected in policymaking and service planning. There are now fundraising bodies such as the AIDS Trust of Australia, support services such as Ankali, remembrance projects such as the Sydney Park AIDS, or SPAIDS, memorial groves and the annual candlelight memorial honouring those who have died.

The largest of these bodies is ACON and it is Australia’s largest community-based gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender health and HIV-AIDS organisation. With a large volunteer and staff base, ACON provides services dealing with sexual health, mental health, alcohol and other drugs, ageing, homophobic violence, domestic violence, housing and workplace equality. In 2010, ACON celebrated 25 years of work to improve gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender health and wellbeing, provide support for people living with HIV and take action to reduce HIV transmission. The ACON organisation has an holistic understanding of health that recognises the negative impact of social factors, including exclusion and discrimination, such as our exclusive and discriminatory marriage laws. Indeed, removing all discrimination from our laws would reduce the negative health impacts caused by stigma and make ACON’s job easier.

With support and funding from this Government and previous governments and from community, arts, business and other organisations, we have prevented the wider spread of HIV and other blood-born viruses. We should be proud of what we have achieved. I acknowledge all those who have worked together to save lives and prevent illness throughout the history of HIV-AIDS. The advent of combination drug therapies about 20 years ago changed HIV from a killer disease to one that could be managed. Thankfully, we have witnessed significant drops in the number of people dying or having serious health crises. Health services no longer need to provide dedicated wards for people with HIV-defined illnesses, and most have integrated their responses to HIV into all health services.

Massive advances in treatment and understanding of how to prevent transmission of the HIV virus have been made. These advances mean that the lives of people with HIV are almost the same as others’ lives. Early treatment can reduce the presence of the HIV virus in the body and help prevent HIV-related illnesses, as well as transmission to others. I encourage all sexually active gay men to get tested regularly throughout the year. If HIV is diagnosed early, men can be offered early treatment to drastically reduce further risks.

It is essential on this World Aids Day that we remember that people in poorer countries and places where homophobia is rife do not have the same support. The cost to them, their families and communities is far greater. It is incumbent on us to share our knowledge and expertise. Australians overseas are doing important work, particularly in our neighbouring countries such as Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.

For the first time, there is a real chance to eradicate this illness and effectively stop HIV by 2020. This is a bold, yet achievable target. The Ending HIV campaign aims to encourage regular testing and early treatment, and to renew efforts to educate and encourage safe behaviours. This progress is a credit to successive Ministers, especially the current New South Wales Minister for Health, Federal and State government bodies and research and health professionals. Most importantly, it is a credit to organisations such as ACON and the wider lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, especially those most affected by HIV-AIDS.

This World AIDS Day is a time to celebrate all that has been achieved and look to the future initiatives, which must include the expansion of rapid testing, the availability and affordability of pre-exposure medications, and safe same-sex sex education in schools.

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